It was the night of Tisha B’Av, Judaism’s most somber holiday, when I was in shul and spotted Josh’s pillow.
It’s not unusual for someone to bring a pillow to prayer that night, because the prevailing custom is to sit on the floor and, well, the floor is hard.
It was the pattern on the pillow that caught my eye.
The cushion had the clearly identifiable look of matzah. I guessed, and Josh confirmed for me, that the pillow is something he uses at the Pesach Seder; one of the guidelines of the Seder is that you should lean at the meal, to show that you are free and at ease. Many have the custom to use a pillow to make the long-term lean more comfortable.
I found myself thinking about the duality of Josh’s pillow—how on Pesach it clearly represents freedom and family and festive rituals and, with his use of it on Tisha B’Av, it also now relates to tragic national memories and mourning. I’m sorta fascinated that one “simple” pillow could hold two such distinct associations.
As I mulled over the duality further, it led me to think about the incense in two stories in the book of Bamidbar (Numbers).
In one story, Moshe’s cousin Korach mounts what is essentially the first rebellion in Jewish history. Korach and 250 comrades each seek the high priesthood instead of Aaron. Moshe tries to dissuade them from their rash act but also proposes a test to see who merits the high priest role: He asks each contender to bring an incense offering in the morning and says that “God will choose who he wants.”
In case you’re unfamiliar with the story, it doesn’t end well for Korach and his crew.
Lesson—don’t contest God’s leadership choices. It’s really bad for your longevity.
Later in the same book of the Torah, the Jewish nation has grumbled ungratefully about something or other and a plague breaks out in punishment. God commands Aaron, through Moshe, to go through the camp of Israel with a pan of incense to stop the plague.
On the spot, the medieval commentator Rashi takes note (Bamidbar 17:15) of the use of incense. He states that the Jewish people saw the role of incense in the episode of Korach and associated it with hazards and death. Rashi says that it is sin that causes death, not the incense on its own. Through this episode of the plague, God was demonstrating that the incense also had the capacity to save lives.
Incense had a potential of duality. It was all a matter of when and how it was used.
I think of Josh’s pillow, which he later said was a gift to him from a family member, and I’m fascinated with the idea that—like the incense—a religiously adjacent object can embrace two opposite associations.
And if it can do that, so should we. We, too, must be nimble enough to embrace and express opposite emotions, celebration and mourning, each in its appropriate time.
By Harry Glazer